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How Leaders Can Learn to “Swim in the Deep End”

High-diving-78391_1920Jennifer Abrams is communications consultant who specializes in effective collaboration in a multi-generational workplace, having hard conversations, and creating identity safe workplaces. Her current work involved helping educators who want to “swim in the deep end,” taking on the many challenges of leadership and thriving. Jennifer will be an expert speaker in the Transformative Leadership Summit, an online professional learning event that will take place from July 31-August 8, where she’ll be joined by education leaders including Jon Harper, Allison Zmuda, Mike Anderson, Justin Baeder, Mark Barnes, and many, many more.

In this interview, Jennifer describes the dispositions every leader must have, gives advice for leaders to get better at giving and receiving feedback, discusses the hardest part of being a new leader, and more.


Rod Berger: People across education and, in fact, across any industry, will have very different definitions of “transformative leadership.” How do you define it?

Jennifer Abrams: I think about transformative leadership as different from transactional leadership.  We are not UPS delivering packages – which is a transaction with a company.  I give you money to send a package and you get it there.  I use UPS often and they do a great job, but they don’t change my life on a developmental level, however.  I am not a more humane person who understands things at a more complex level after my interactions with them.

Transformational leaders ask you to think beyond the work “as is” and push you to see the greater good you are working toward. They show you how you can achieve more, in bigger and more hopeful ways for the good of all; in schools, this means both the educators and students.

RB: With different leadership styles and situations, it’s understandable that leadership will not always look the same. However, there are certain qualities or behaviors that should be consistent for all leaders. What are your leadership non-negotiables―the dispositions or characteristics that absolutely every leader must embrace?

JA: I have been thinking about the dispositions quite a bit these days while I am writing a new book on “playing in the deep end” and what it takes to be a leader regardless of role. I have been thinking about the cognitive, psychological, and social capacities every leader needs to have. Cognitively, a leader must understand his or her biases so they are aware of where they fall short in seeing the big picture. Leaders also need to have a clear idea of how to plan for a rollout of whatever vision they are working on. Psychologically, we all need to have a strong ability to bounce back – a resiliency that will help leaders continue to wake up every day and move their schools forward for the sake of students. And socially, I consider leaders to be exceptionally “other focused” – aware of who they are working with and understanding how one’s background, belief systems, and learning stances can impact how one works.

 RB: A lot of your work involves giving feedback to people who are used to being the ones who give the feedback. What are some of the characteristics of leaders who are good at receiving feedback?

JA: Leaders need to take Heen and Stone’s advice to heart and hear feedback as “input, not imprint.”  Don’t dismiss the feedback – look at the perspective with an open mind and adapt as need be – but don’t beat yourself up over it.  Buddhists call it a “second arrow” – the feedback possibly stinging and being the first arrow but don’t then hurt yourself more by twisting it and causing more hurt.  Leaders are discerning – they know what to do (and do so) and what not to do.

 RB: When you work with leaders on improving how they deliver feedback, what are the first two things you focus on? What are some exercises educators can try on their own to improve how they deliver feedback?

JA: I always share with people that you want to have a relationship with the other person at the end of the conversation, so you need to figure out how you can say what you want in a humane and growth-producing way.  We have all heard things that were a bit hurtful and, worse, also not helpful.  So consider your adjectives and your adverbs and your personal characterizations; do you need to share whether someone “willfully” did something? Do you need to call someone a “hot mess?”  Chances are no, you don’t.  So be more humane in your word choice.  I always stick with neutral language within performance evaluations.

Then if you want the feedback to be taken and acted upon, giving some growth-producing ideas of “what next steps one might take” (watch the language again) would be a good step toward helping the person to the next best steps.

RB: What is the most difficult part of being a new leader? What advice do you have for motivating leaders to face this challenge directly?

JA: I think one of the hardest parts about being new is that you are already supposed to be able to do the job really well on day one.  You are the principal, full stop.  We are more compassionate and understanding of students as they grow and develop, but being a principal may elicit more reactions of “just do your job.”.  New leaders need to understand and have those around them understand that they are in the process of “becoming” – they are forming their identity as the leader – and that while they need to assure others they are reflecting and open to feedback they also need to have others understand they are becoming the leader they want to be.  I think a little empathy and understanding, both self-empathy and that shared by others, helps a new leader to move forward in a humane way.  We don’t want to burn them out as they are just beginning their journey of being leaders.  We need all of us to be in it together.

Related Resources

1. edCircuit ― Transformative Leadership Summit Will Focus on Improving the School Experience

2. edCircuit ― Swimming in the Deep End

3. Scholastic Administrator ― Why Leaders Should Demonstrate That Making Mistakes is Okay



About Jennifer Abrams

A former English teacher and new teacher coach, Jennifer Abrams is currently a communications consultant who specializes in new employee support, effective collaboration in a multi-generational workplace, having hard conversations, and creating identity safe workplaces. Abrams is the author of Having Hard Conversations, The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicate, Collaborate and Create Community, and Hard Conversations Unpacked: the Whos, the Whens and the What Ifs.  

Learn more at jenniferabrams.com and follow Jennifer Abrams on Twitter.

About Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. Rod Berger, a respected leader in education communications, is a global education media personality featured on edCircuit, in EdTech Review India, Scholastic's District Administrator and Forbes. As an industry personality, Dr. Berger has interviewed Ministers of Education, leading voices like Sir Ken Robinson, U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, AFT President Randi Weingarten and others.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Down the Hall are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.